Nutcracker: An American Nightmare VHS

Dance of the sugar plum psychosis

The Nutcracker story has always been one of the more disturbing Christmas tales for me. The image of the madly staring figure in military dress is bad enough, but even worse is the focus on its menacing mouth, ready to strike with crushing force. And don’t even mention his tendency to get into bloody fights with sewer rats.

One would think a horror story centered around a nutcracker would feature a murderous little bugger much like the indefatigable Chucky, or the Zuni warrior doll in Trilogy of Terror. However, Glen Grefe’s movie aims higher than that, and achieves less. This Nutcracker also refers to a slang term for a psychiatrist, and the double meaning is used to fuel a claustrophobic little psycho thriller, which nevertheless fails to make the most of its most interesting ideas.

The main fault lies with the film’s protagonist, schmuck psychologist Carton Farfax (Bill Bragg). The film begins with Carlton in an asylum, and the rest is told in flashback, so any suspense in the film will be based on how he got there. Unfortunately, he’s too unsavory a character to make us care. The unusual techniques he uses to ‘cure’ his patients are all grandstand plays to sell his books, and involve dangerous drugs and psychotronic devices. One of his ‘cures’ blows up in his face when, during a TV interview with Cheryl Jennings (as herself), she reveals that the patient has just gone on a rampage. Another former patient – Darien O’Toole as Blair Weesch(!) – has developed a dangerous obsession with him after he took advantage of her trust for a dalliance.

With even his “cyberscope psychologist” wife April (Christine Marie Schneider) turning against him, Fairfax pins his hopes on the treatment of a new patient referred to him by his mistress Sierra Steinbach (Elina Fillipova), who heads up a university psychology program. The patient John Gard (David Hess) is clearly a dangerous nut, but Fairfax goes ahead with his mind-meld treatments without waiting to get his case history. As a result, a string of murders is committed, one of the victims being Mrs. Fairfax.

Is Carlton cracking up? Well, we already know he is – but who done the murders? The answer may surprise you – or not.

Besides the unsavory main character, Nutcracker suffers a bit from its technical inadequacies. Director of photography Victor Ballesteros does a nice job lighting and framing scenes for high end video. However, the video image makes the movie look just like a TV soap opera, an impression made even worse by the use of cheesy ’80s-style synthesizer on the soundtrack. Worse yet, the sound levels are all over the place, forcing the viewer to constantly adjust the volume.

On the plus side, Grefe’s direction is fittingly quirky and there are some intriguing ideas in his script. If anything, his story suffers from an improper venue – it might have worked better with a look that was less slick and more gritty. The nephew of p-fave William Grefe (Death Curse of Tartu, Hooked Generation), Greg shows a lot of talent and I hope to see more of his work in the future.

Some of the performances are also quite good. Especially enjoyable is Hess, who appeared in many Italian thrillers like Body Count and House on the Edge of the Park, but is probably best remembered as a psycho killer in Last House on the Left.

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